When you get to our age.
“When you get to our age” – it’s a phrase I dread hearing. It’s usually intoned by unhappy women who are determined, after they reach their ‘sixties, on blaming every single ill on their increasing years. ‘When you get to our age,” they moan, “you can’t expect to be able to dance the night away/stay up after midnight/sleep in a tent/ have one-night stands/enjoy current rock music/sleep properly...” the list of whines is endless.
But who wants to do all that, to be honest? I’ve been young, done that, worn the tee-shirt and given it to Age Concern. I’m enjoying this entirely new age – the age of being old.
The best time of your life.
When I was young, I remember elderly friends telling me, enviously, that it was the best time of my life. As a result I felt cast down. Were they saying that from now on things were going to get worse? What a ghastly prospect! They say getting old is not for sissies, but in my experience it’s not being old that’s so nerve-racking, it’s being young.
What a relief.
In fact, one of the brilliant things about being old – and I’m 68 – is that you’re not young. What a relief it is not having that seemingly unending future hanging over you like a great cloud, full of myriad possibilities.
Wondering whether I should be a social worker, secretary, ballet dancer, empire builder, shelf-stacker, writer or whatever was as frighteningly confusing as being faced with one those walls of different olive oils at big supermarket. Too much choice.
Instead of this, facing a daunting future, being old means that you have, instead, a rich past, a past you can plunder and enjoy as you wander down memory lane. My memory lane is as long as the M1. Young people’s memory lanes stretch no further than the length of a short mews.
The follies of youth.
Each day that comes, when you’re young, you’re learning something from experience – making mistakes, being hurt, hurting others, stumbling through life.
When you’re older you've learned most of it. The passage of your life is far smoother. And the result is the absence of all that anxiety. Does she like me? Did I say the right thing? Will he ask me out? Will he ring? Will I ever get married and have children?
Am I stupid? The sickening confidence of the old means all that’s swept away. I can joke with strangers in the street and call people “Darling” who I hardly know. I can send back food in restaurants with a smile. I can speak up when you disagree. And if I fall over in the street you can blame the pavement.
Even better, you can patronise the middle aged. I met a 50-year-old the other day and was delighted to be able to say to him “ I'm old enough to be your mother!”
Each day is a blessing.
And the fact that my life, at last, seems finite, gives every day a new poignancy, and means I can cut out the crap. I can walk out of rubbish films and refuse invitations from rubbish friends.
I can tell people loudly that I don’t agree with them. Or, even better, admit I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about, with the confidence of knowing that if I can’t understand it it’s not because I'm daft, it’s because they’re incapable of explaining anything properly. And I can start new ventures with no fear of whether I succeed or fail. Nothing matters so much any more.
Trying something new.
When I was sixty-three I decided I’d like to try out a one-woman show, called Growing Old Disgracefully, a kind of grannie stand-up. With the courage I’d never have possessed when young, I took it to Edinburgh and now
I'm still touring. In the old days I’d have been too nervous even to squeak out a toast to a birthday friend. These days I stride out on stage, rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of an hour of entertaining hundreds of people.
Enjoying the view
Most people seem to think of being old as some kind of downwards slide. (In some ways this is true, but it’s worth remembering that the view as you hurtle down the hill is far more spectacular than when you’re trudging up).
But I prefer to think of old age as an entirely new, uncharted country, in which myself and my fellow oldies are intrepid explorers, hacking our way through the jungle and finding all kinds of treats and oases on the way.
Grandchildren are one of the hidden surprises of old age. They say that grandchildren are the reward you get for not killing your children. And, with age, nature has become a whole lot more interesting. Show me a view of rolling hills when I was young and I’d just say: “Boring!”. Now I can stare for hours, doing that curious thing you can only do when old, “marvelling.”
Stand out in a crowd.
And, while so many contemporaries have decided to “let themselves go” it’s a joy to find it’s not nearly as hard to stand out from the crowd as it was when you were young, with only the minimum of effort.
So many of my friends complain they feel invisible now they’re old. But I say rather than try to beat the young at their own game why not cultivate the glamorous ruin look, and go for the “gorgeous romantic old castle in a picture by Poussin” look?
Men and sex.
True, sexual desire wanes, but why bemoan it? I’ve had enough sex, anyway, to last me a lifetime. What dwindling sexual feelings means is that a whole 50% of the population – men- is now available to me, not as nerve-rackingly potential lovers but, rather, friends with whom I can share deep feelings of love and closeness.
And talking of friends, that’s another thing. When you’re young, you can’t have old friends. You just haven’t lived long enough. When you’re old, old friends are treasured possessions.
Re-reading the classics is another perk. You've invariably forgotten the plots, and I'm astonished by how much my views have changed. I used to regard Jane Austin and Tolstoy as geniuses; today - hmm. But Anthony Trollope - quite the reverse. I used to hate going to the theatre. Now I love it.
Now it’s true, I'm not so sure about being really old. Arthritis has already come stealing into my body, not to mention various other unspeakable physical complaints. Every day I discover yet another friend has cancer or some grim terminal illness.
But death doesn't worry me. It’s a very odd fact that the older you get, the less frightened you become of death until finally, if most of my elderly friends are anything to go by, they might even welcome the Grim Reaper when he knocks on the door.
No, there’s a period that might not be quite as much fun as things are now – that’s the time after eighty-five, an age-group which Mosby’s, a respected US medical dictionary, describes as the “old old”. But for the moment, it’s non-stop delight.
During my life I've been congratulated on everything from passing exams, getting married, giving birth, writing books, all kinds of things. But no one’s ever congratulated me on reaching my sixties. Rather the reverse – they've commiserated. And yet it’s the thing I think I am most proud of in my life. I’ve managed, somehow, to stagger through this extraordinary vale of tears and reached my the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow not only reasonably intact but happier than I've ever been in my life.
'Tessa, well done on getting the website up and running' Virginia Ironside
Virginia Ironside's new comic novel, No! I Don’t Need Reading Glasses! is published by Quercus (£14.99) For information about the show visit www.virginiaironside.org
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